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How much do special teams matter in the playoffs?

There was a moment, earlier in these playoffs, when Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett was asked about his team's power play woes against the Detroit Red Wings - and he made a good point. Tippett said he didn't like to isolate one specific aspect of his team's play, on the grounds that you can sometimes win games without scoring a power-play goal, or lose them even if you're successful with the man advantage. Tippett stressed the overall quality of a team's performance ultimately carried the greatest weight for him in terms of its success or failure.

As the NHL playoffs get deeper into the second round, it's hard to dispute Tippett's point, especially as it relates to the opposite levels of special teams success of the two teams threatening to meet in the Eastern Conference final. At one end of the spectrum is the Boston Bruins, up 2-0 on the Philadelphia Flyers despite the fact that they have yet to score a single power-play goal in these playoffs (0-for-28).

At the other end is the Tampa Bay Lightning, which has a league-leading 10 power-play goals on 36 chances (27.8 per cent). Tampa and the Detroit Red Wings are the only two teams still alive in the playoffs doing anything with the man advantage - and it isn't really helping Detroit. Despite a relatively solid 5-for-23 mark (21.7 per cent), the Red Wings are down 2-0 to the San Jose Sharks.

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Collectively, the eight teams remaining in the playoff hunt are converting only 15.45 per cent of their power-play opportunities, down from the 18 per cent overall success rate managed by teams in the regular season.

Vancouver had the top power play in the NHL this season, at 24.3 per cent. In the playoffs, the Canucks are chugging along at 16.7 per cent. San Jose was second in the regular season (23.5 per cent). In the playoffs, they're down to 11.8 per cent. Washington wasn't as good as it has been in the past with the man advantage this year (a middle-of-the-pack 17.5 per cent), but have been far worse in the playoffs (11.1 per cent).

So do special teams really matter? And more importantly, why are power play percentages across the board are so grim in these playoffs?

Tampa, with 10 power-play goals for and only one against (on 46 times short for a spectacular 97.8 per cent success rate on the penalty kill) is the one team that has relied heavily on special teams for its success in this year's playoffs. So the question was put to coach Guy Boucher prior to tonight's third game against the Capitals: As a coach, is it easier or harder to prepare special teams when facing an opponent up to seven games in a row in the postseason?

"What it does is, it really makes you come down to the smaller details," answered Boucher. "When you play a team seven times, it becomes these little minute differences in what you're trying to do sometimes - where they stand, sometimes, it's just a foot here or a foot there, or the type of shot you're shooting and how you're fronting that."

The way players block shots now compared to even two decades a go is a major difference in the way they kill penalties - that and the way teams aggressively pursue the puck, putting pressure on constantly and frequently forcing players to dish off passes before they're ready. Tampa is willing to risk a mismatch elsewhere to overplay the puck carrier, or so it would seem.

In his short time behind an NHL bench, Boucher has not been afraid to alter strategies and systems within a game; and his team has been very good at defending leads, playing an effective one-three-one that would bring a smile to Jacques Lemaire's face.

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"I think you have to spend a lot of time on special teams," said Boucher. "It doesn't mean it's going to work, but at least, it gives you the sense that you've got a plan to get you ahead of the game, or at least to be able to counter when things don't go well."

Power play percentages were far greater three decades ago and according to former Edmonton Oilers defenceman Steve Smith, the slump has a lot to do with team's increasing reliance on video. The trick nowadays is to stay one tweak or adjustment ahead of the other team's video scouting reports - and be prepared to change at a moment's notice.

Tampa has done that particularly well as it relates to Steven Stamkos, who scored 17 regular-season power-play goals this season, many of them in the first half, which is when teams simply decided to take him away as an option, frequently overplaying to where he was setting up for a one-timer.

Tampa adjusted accordingly. Stamkos has just two power-play goals in the postseason, the same as Vincent Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina. Tampa's power play goal-scoring leader is Martin St. Louis, with three, which is surprising only because St. Louis managed just four power-play goals in the entire regular season.

"From 1986 to 1990, there was very little video; very little pre-scouting, very little information that you had on players and systems, and quite frankly, systems weren't as important over the course of a game," explained Smith. "You'd get a guy like Glen Sather or Mike Keenan, they were motivators and allowed their players to be creative, but they didn't play kitty-bar-the-door night after night."

Keenan was legendary for not practising his power play, preferring to let his players improvise, theorizing that he didn't want to take their creativity away. Boucher is from a completely different school of thought.

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"Special teams, I've always thought you need to spend a lot of time on that if you want to have success," said Boucher. "Or else you leave it to chance, and that usually doesn't help very much."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More

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